Women in the Hadith Literature

By, Ignaz Goldziher

Though the terminology of the science of traditions refers to the links in the chain of transmitters as rijal al-hadith, i.e. 'men of the tradition', we frequently meet in the isnads women as authorities for many hadiths. The liber classium virorum qui karani et traditionum cognitione excellerunt, edited by Wustenfeld, only lists seven women in all, but an examination of the hadiths from this point of view would yield a far greater number. It is not surprising that occasionally hadiths which were preserved by female authorities are passed on again by women. The sayings of the Prophet going back to Companion Salam al-Fazariyya, for example, are said to have been current mostly amongst the women of Kufa.1

Two women transmitted from Malik bin Anas, Abida al-Madaniyyah, the wife (originally slave) of the Andalusian scholar in tradition Habib Dahhun,2 and her grand-daughter Abda bin Bishr.3 Women occupy an eminent place in the history of the transmission of the text of the Sahih of Bukhari. The most famous source of the text is a woman called Karima bin Ahmad from Marw (d. 462 in Mecca). No transmitter of the Bukhari could compete with her isnad.4 Abu Dharr of Harat (himself a great authority in ilm al-hadith) says of this woman before his death, 'Keep exclusively to Karima, because she has acquired the knowledge of al-Bukhari's work in the line of transmission (tariq) of Abu'l-Haytham".5 It is in fact very common in the ijaza of the transmission of the Bukhari text to find as middle member of the long chain the name of Karima al-Marwaziyya.6 A contemporary of this Karima was Fatima bin Ali (d. 480), daughter of a school teacher. She was famed as a calligrapher and expert in traditions.7 Amongst the authorities in whom the well known historian of Damascus Ibn Asakir owes his hadiths eighty women (as against 1300 sheikhs) are mentioned.8 Study of the hadith appears to have occasionally been indigenous in one only three sisters were busy with collecting and spreading traditions.9

In Andalusia, where scholarly activity of women was quite accepted in some fields of knowledge,10 we find Shuhda 'the writer' in the sixth century (d. 574 aged almost a hundred), who was occupied with lectures on al-Bukhari11 and other works.12 Because of the excellent isnads authenticating her traditions she collected a large number of listseners13 and the fact that it was considered worthwhile to lie about having attended her lectures proves sufficiently how highly contemporaries valued the instructions of Shuhda.14

This age is particularly rich in female representatives of Islamic  science. There is the learned Zaynab bint al-Sha'ri (d.617) of Nisabur who boasts a large number of ijaza diplomas from learned contemporaries (e.g.al-Zamakhshari) and whose ijaza in turn was sought after by men like Ibn Khallikan.15 When reading the great biographical work of Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani on the scholars of the eighth century we may marvel at the number of women to whom the author has to dedicate articles. Amongst others there is a certain Daqiqa bint Murshid (d. 746) who was the pupil of many learned women. One of her teachers, Zaynab bint Ahmad from Jerusalem, called Bint al-Kamal (d. 740) left a whole camel load of ijaza diplomas and pupils flocked to attend her theological lectures.16 The authenticity of the Gotha Codex no. 59017 rests on her authority. In the same isnad a large number of learned women are cited who had occupied themselves with this work. Ibn Battuta was able during his stay at Damascus (in 726) to enlarge his knowledge of hadith from her and other learned women.18 Her contemporary Aisha bin Muhammad b. Abd al-Hadi is called the great musnida.19 It should not be overlooked that an author of the seventh century whose description of morals mainly refers to Egypt mentions among the misuses of the mawlid festival contrary to the sunna that women gathered around a Sheikha who has acquired knowledge in the explanation of the Koran; she lectures the women present on passages in the Koran and tells them legends of the prophet.20

Musnidas are common up to about the tenth century, and this title occurs very frequently in the lists of authentications in manuscripts and in ijazas.21 In Egypt learned women gave ijazat to people listening to their lectures right up to the Ottoman conquest.22 Amongst the learned members of the Zuhayra family there is a woman Umm al-Khayr whose ijaza is asked for in 938 by a visitor to Mecca.23


1. Ibn Hajar, IV, p. 634.

2. Al-Maqqari, II, p. 96. She is said to have possessed no less than 10,000 Medinian traditions.

3. Ibid. I, p. 803.

4. Ibn al-Athir, X, p. 26.

5. Al-Maqqari, I, p. 876.

6. E.g., in the isnad of Abu'l Mahasin for the work of al-Bukhari, II, p. 261.

7. Ibn al-Athir, X, p. 69.

8. Tab. Huff., XVI, no. 16.

9. Yaqut, II. p. 584, 8.

10. Cf. Al-Marrakhushi, p. 270, 3.

11. Abulfeda, Annales, IV. p. 39.

12. Thus for example the Kremer codex of the Masari al-Ushshaq by Abu Muhammad al-Sarraj (d. 500) is based on the transmission 'Of the learned sheikha, the glory of womanhood, Shuhda' Samml. orient. p. 73, no. 194).

13. Ibn al-Athir, XI, p. 185. (Also cf. Yaqut in index of personal names, s.v.)

14. Al-Maqqari, II, p. 96.

15. Ibn Khallikan, nos. 250, 723, ed. Wustenfeld, III, p. 59, VIII, p. 72.

16. Al-Durar al-Kamina (Ms. as above, p. 385), II, fol. 13b.

17. Fol. 100b.

18. Voyagers d'I. B., I, p. 253.

19. Al-Qastallani, I, p. 33, cf. above, p. 210.

20. Al-Abdari, al-Madkhal, I, p. 270.

21. E.g. very common in Asanid al-Muhaddithin. I only mention as examples: I, fol. 29b Bay Khatun bint al-Qadi ala al-Din; II, fol. 11b al-musnida al-mukthira al-asila Umm Muhammad Sara bint Siraj al-Din b. Qadi al-Qudat, etc. ibid. khatimat al-musnidin Umm al-Fadl Hajar al-Qudsiyya; I, fol. 74b names the wife of Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani as transmitter: al-shaykha al-raisa al-asila Umm al-Kiram bint al-Qadi Karim al-Din al-Lakhmi. Cf. also ijaza for Koran readings to a woman in Ahlwardt, Berl. Cat., p. 61, no. 165.

22. Hammer-Purgstall, Literaturgesch. der Araber, I, p. XXIV.

23. Chron. Mekka, II p. XXII.


[Source: Ignaz Goldziger. Muslim Studies, Vol. Two, pp. 366-368; english version published in 1977 by SUNY-Albany University Press; Goldziger lived 1850-1921].

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